By Andrew Cremata
Beams of white light radiated from narrow breaks in the canopy to the forest floor, backlighting mint-green leaves of Devil’s club that covered a steep embankment. Pressed against the stillness was the faint sound of a burbling creek as meltwater flowed between rock and root.
Two woodpeckers began a conversation of knocks that were quickly swallowed by the hollow expanse beneath the canopy of spruce, hemlock and cedar. Five raps answered by five raps, establishing a rhythm until some mutual understanding caused one bird to fly directly over my head. I hopped over the creek and walked deeper into the woods.
When most people think of the Tongass National Forest, Skagway, Alaska doesn’t come to mind. Skagway is well known for its Klondike Gold Rush history and modern cruise ship tourism. Many visitors are surprised to discover a robust trail system over some steep, dramatic terrain.
However, one trail a few miles north of downtown Skagway penetrates dense old-growth forest in the Tongass en route to a young glacial valley. It is one of Skagway’s hidden gems and it’s called the Denver Glacier Trail.
During most seasons, access to the trail is facilitated by a short train ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route train. Adjacent to the trailhead is an old caboose that’s been converted into a rentable Forest Service cabin that sleeps six.
During the summer of 2020, COVID left Skagway without any cruise-related tourism. Without the trains, the six mile round-trip jaunt becomes a 12 mile, full day adventure. On a particularly sunny and warm day in July, I decided to set off on the trail. It was a rare opportunity to soak in the scenery with little risk of running into another human soul.
Skagway is an alpine hiker’s paradise, but there is little old-growth rainforest surrounding our community that is commonly associated with the Tongass. Many of the mountainsides around town were clearcut during the Gold Rush. However, the Denver Glacier Trail’s more remote location spared the valley from hordes of stampeders hungry for gold.
I imagine that my adoration of Tongass old growth forest may seem redundant to some Southeast Alaska residents. Especially if they live in places more commonly associated with these unique ecosystems. To me, the Denver Glacier Trail is precious because it’s a rare environment in Skagway. Just as Tongass old growth temperate rainforest is a rare environment within this nation and very little of this type of ecosystem remains on our planet as a whole.
Obviously, many other Alaskans agree. Last fall, when the Forest Service asked for public comment in response to the suggested Tongass Roadless Rule repeal, 96% of participants said they were against the repeal and supported Alternative One — leaving the rule in place. In Skagway, residents gathered to share their opinions on the possible exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. One hundred percent were against a full exemption. It has been recently announced that despite overwhelming public support for the rule, the preferred alternative selected by the leadership in Washington D.C. reflects the full removal of the protections of the Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest. This puts our largest remaining stands of old growth and our most productive watersheds at risk to extraction.
There is a point on the Denver Glacier trail where the terrain changes. The trees are smaller. The alder and devil’s club is more dense. The lichen species change and the trail begins to gain elevation. It is here where one walks the path covered by glaciers less than 125 years ago. There are Gold Rush photos showing stampeders standing on the Denver Glacier that were taken in 1898. Today, the glacier is barely visible 1,200 feet above the valley floor.
The glacial valley is spectacular. Unnamed waterfalls spill on exposed rock and join the East Fork of the Skagway River where it flows into the Pacific Ocean only fifteen miles distant.
On that warm July day, I laid down on my back and soaked in the sunlight with my dog, Rufus, sitting on my chest. Closing my eyes, I focused on the sound of water crashing against earth — the voice of creation itself. It was the same voice I heard at the Forest Service meeting in Skagway and the voice of real Alaskans who value the Tongass for what is.
The problem with processes like this is that we can speak to the many ways this place is valuable to us, but there is no mechanism that allows us to quantify the experience of it.
We can speak to the many economic reasons intact ecosystems are important for production of salmon and support of our fisheries, and how tourists don’t come to Southeast Alaska to see clearcuts. We can talk about how the residents of our rural communities rely on old growth forest to provide habitat for the deer and the fish that we harvest to fill our freezers and feed our families. We can speak to how uneconomical the timber industry is without major government subsidies.
Yet, even with all of this talk there is no category or quantifier for the connection that gets into our blood, fills our hearts with adoration and our souls with inspiration. Regardless of our beliefs, we all understand this sublime feeling. It is our connection to these lands and waters and the love we have for this way of life that ties us to this place and unites us across this region.
Our communal connection is our love for Southeast Alaska and it’s the source of the passion heard in so many voices that spoke out at these meetings. This is the power and the passion and the poetry inherent in the burbling sound of water tumbling over rock and root.
If local voices don’t matter, then how can anyone believe the process was fair to begin with? If the game is rigged toward dollars and cents, nobody can call these lands “public” and maintain a shred of integrity.
For me, the Tongass is a blue heron chasing tadpoles along the riverbank. It’s a young fluffy varied thrush clumsily learning to fly, missing his branch, landing and tumbling to the forest floor. It’s the haunting sound of treetops as they rub together in a rising afternoon wind.
The choice of Alternative Six represents the desire to take these trees and not even get a monetary return for what they’re worth. They will become industrial products like cheap wood pulp furniture that lasts a few years before it breaks and ends up in the local landfill. Or maybe some OSB panels used for substandard wall or roof construction, doomed to be replaced when water inevitably damages its integrity.
The ignorance of this choice represents a fundamental misunderstanding of this region and our way of life, and a profound disconnect between our leadership and the constituents they are meant to represent.
Alaskans have already spoken their mind on the Roadless Rule. Maybe it’s time to lay back in the sun with a dog on your chest and listen.
Andrew Cremata is the
Mayor of Skagway, Alaska